Facebook’s acquisition of the original Oculus Rift was once a subject of debate. At that point, before anybody knew Facebook’s intent, there was a fear that they would somehow ruin the promise of compelling VR. When the device was finally made available to the public, a lot of those fears were abated because the technology and support remained impressive. You also didn’t need a Facebook account to use the device. While that is still true today, a recent announcement by Oculus indicates that users will eventually need to acquire a Facebook account to use their headsets. Is Oculus shooting themselves in the foot with this announcement?
Formerly, it was very easy to separate feelings about owning an Oculus headset from feelings about having a Facebook account. Whether or not this approach was wise remains to be seen but, judging by some of the reactions garnered by the announcement, the ability to reconcile those concepts was pretty important. This is likely because Facebook, as a company, hasn’t done much to maintain the public’s trust. Part of the reason for this is that Facebook collects vast amount of date to use in a myriad of ways and that gives them an immense amount of power. To quote Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Whether or not Facebook is a company that acts responsibly is pretty murky. Typically speaking, money is one of the biggest influences in a company’s decision-making process. It is natural to be concerned that morality might only be a consideration when it comes to the company’s public image. If you believe large corporations are amoral, a sense of unease makes a lot of sense.
It isn’t only a matter of distrust, either. There’s also a degree of animosity. Facebook has, in the past, managed to anger people across the political spectrum and that is not an easy task. It is because of this mixture of distrust and animosity that people are calling for boycotts. But there are plenty of cases where boycotts have rapidly lost momentum. Virtual reality might be a different kind of battle, though, and the consumers might have more power here.
The thing about virtual reality is that it is, as of now, a really small industry. Oculus might have helped make the industry a bit bigger with its lower priced, wireless options. Accessibility and convenience are likely important factors for the success of a product. But the PlayStation VR is also very accessible and will be supported by the highly anticipated PlayStation 5. Meanwhile, the HTC Vive offers a very comparable experience to the Oculus and is bolstered by a very large selection of games. These, and future headsets, could become very appealing alternatives to Oculus headsets.
A big question might be whether or not the anger at the announcement itself is justified. Any way you slice it, supporting Oculus is supporting Facebook. And Facebook still has access to unique data from the headset. They also likely have a fairly good idea about who the headset belongs to, assuming the headset is consistently used from the same IP address and a credit card was linked to the account. If Oculus owners recognize this futility, they might realize that the announcement doesn’t change the status quo all that much.
Perhaps the announcement will grow awareness, though. Perhaps people will actively seek out competing products. This whole thing could open up smarketing opportunities for other companies. It could also dissuade developers from creating software for Oculus headsets. Of course, it is very possible that Facebook predicted this level of fallout before they even made the announcement and decided the risk was still worth it. Whether or not that risk will payoff for them is entirely up to the consumers. But wouldn’t it be fun if the company that knows everything about everyone was somehow blindsided by human behavior? I certainly think so